By Ken Borland
Madagascar was a French colony from 1896 to 1960, which explains the presence of Rugby on the fourth largest island on the planet. But as in the whole continent of Africa, soccer was also the major attraction in Madagascar. Of course, that was before the proud and strong Malagasy began enjoying more and more success with the oval ball.
Rugby is now the official national sport of the massive Indian Ocean island and Madagascar has risen up the IRB World Rankings in amazing fashion, currently sitting in 36th position, ahead of more established nations such as Paraguay, Senegal and the Ivory Coast.
“Rugby is popular here as it does not need a big investment or much special kit. You have the normal field, but really people can play anywhere, even on a plot of wasteland,” said Victor-Lie Andriavelomanana, the manager of the Malagasy Rugby Union.
“Football is also very popular but the national team lose most of the time, whereas during the colonisation period, Rugby men played as if they were fighting for their nation and this state of mind is still kept until now.”
The national team, dubbed the ‘Makis’ (the local name for the famous indigenous ring-tailed lemur), have certainly brought the most sporting success to the island of more than 20 million people, which still suffers from considerable poverty.
RWC 2015 qualification is still on
The Serendib International Cup, a new IRB-supported inter-continental tournament, which Sri Lanka hosted and which also featured Madagascar and Poland, is the latest silverware they have brought back to the capital, Antananarivo, and the grand prize of qualification for Rugby World Cup 2015 still looms tantalisingly on the horizon.
The aim of the invitation to Sri Lanka was to help Madagascar in their preparations for the last round of RWC qualification in Africa that will be played on the island between June 26 and July 6, 2014.
Madagascar finished at the top of their African qualifying group by beating Namibia, the continent’s highest-ranked team after the Springboks, 57-54, in one of the most amazing games of Rugby played in 2012, the last-gasp extra-time victory sending the packed crowd of 40,000 at the Mahamasina Stadium into raptures.
Madagascar will be part of the Africa Cup Division 1A competition later this year, from which the winners qualify for Rugby World Cup as Africa 1 to join New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and the Europe 1 qualifier in Pool C.
More than 25,000 registered players
“The good results of the Makis means many people are attracted to play rugby. We have more than 25,000 registered players and there has been a lot of recent growth, which is due to the success of the national team,” said Andriavelomanana says with the sort of steely determination that shows Madagascar are not done yet with shocking the Rugby world.
“The Malagasy people were very happy but it was not as amazing as that for us to beat Namibia. We are now in the stage of preparing for qualification to the World Cup 2015.”
“There has been a strategic plan applied by Malagasy Rugby Union that is to spread the game throughout the island and now it exists in 14 regions out of 22 around Madagascar, whereas it was only eight out of 22 in 2008.”
Malagasy Rugby Union president Marcel Rakotomalala said: “Madagascar host qualifying matches for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in 2015 and the organisation requires more hardware and financial resources, not to mention the establishment of a training centre at the base of the Makis in Andohatapenaka."
IRB supports the growth of the Game
The IRB supports Madagascar and has been working closely with the Union there since 2002. The annual IRB development grant has been increased in each of the past three years.
Madagascar have been involved in various training seminars organised by the Confédération Africaine de Rugby (CAR) and IRB regional development manager Jean-Luc Barthes conducts a Union review every year and has a conference call with them every two weeks to plot the progress.
Since the beginning of the year, Madagascar have been involved in the IRB’s ground-breaking and tremendously successful Get Into Rugby programme and they receive additional assistance as regards equipment, training and other resources. As Namibia discovered, Madagascar should certainly not be underestimated, especially when playing in front of their fanatical home crowd.
There are 160 clubs in Antananarivo alone and the top sides get regular crowds of more than 8,000 people with extensive local and national television coverage ensuring the matches are well publicised.
So imagine the atmosphere when 40,000 people have been queuing since 06:00 at the Mahamasina Stadium to watch their beloved Makis only to be fired up by the haka-like dance their team perform? That can only spell deep trouble for the opposition.
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ken Borland